Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown, lawmakers propose $1.1 billion drought relief bill amid increasing tension

Gov. Jerry Brown, third from left, is joined by, from left, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, as they head to a Capitol news conference where they announced a $1.1 billion emergency drought package on Thursday.
Gov. Jerry Brown, third from left, is joined by, from left, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, as they head to a Capitol news conference where they announced a $1.1 billion emergency drought package on Thursday. rpench@sacbee.com

With California trudging into its fourth dry year, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders on Thursday announced $1.1 billion in emergency funding for flood protection and drought relief.

The vast majority of the money – all but about $30 million – was already included in Brown’s January budget proposal, and the measure is similar to a bill package lawmakers approved last year.

But tension over the drought runs higher today than it did then, when Brown first declared a drought emergency and urged Californians to reduce water consumption by 20 percent. This year, California recorded its driest-ever January, and state regulators on Tuesday ordered water agencies to limit the number of days each week customers can water their lawns.

Brown, who said last month that he was reluctant to impose mandatory water restrictions, suggested Thursday that he is open to more stringent measures.

“I’m not going to second-guess (state water regulators), but I would share your urgency that we step it up in the weeks and months ahead,” the Democratic governor said at a news conference at the Capitol.

Brown said, “If this drought continues, we’ll crank it down and it will get extremely challenging for people in California.”

The Legislature is expected to hold votes next week on the drought package, whose passage will allow spending immediately – months before the July 1 start of the next budget year.

The measure includes $272.7 million in water recycling and drinking water quality programs funded by Proposition 1, the water bond voters approved last year.

But the majority of the funding – $660 million – comes from water and flood-prevention bonds voters approved nearly a decade ago, in 2006.

Brown said, “The fact is, these projects take a long time.”

Outside the Capitol, patience appears to be waning.

According to a February Field Poll, 94 percent of California voters consider the drought situation in California “serious,” with nearly 70 percent calling it “extremely serious.” Public support for water rationing, though still just more than one-third of voters, has grown in the past year.

“I think, for the public, an increasingly large proportion is becoming alarmed,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll. “The governor is taking actions which I think make him at least appear to the public that he’s attending to the problem.”

Contributing to the public’s growing concern was a widely circulated editorial in the Los Angeles Times last week in which Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the state was at risk of running out of water altogether.

“Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing,” Famiglietti wrote. “California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.”

Speaking at the Capitol, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said the one-year water supply estimate and the lack of water this year “is creating a renewed sense of urgency.”

He said the drought package “is just the first round” in the Legislature’s effort to address the drought and that “we have much work to do.”

The water bond voters approved last year includes $2.7 billion for storage projects such as dams and reservoirs. Brown said “these are big projects, and I’m certainly looking very carefully at how we can get more storage as quickly as possible.”

Republican lawmakers have been more insistent, seizing on the drought to criticize the lack of water infrastructure investments in the past, as well as the current pace of project approvals.

“I’m calling on the state water agencies, on state government to get projects out of the red tape, to get them moving because they’ve been hung up for decades,” said Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen of Riverbank.

Nevertheless, Olsen and Bob Huff, the Republican Senate leader, stood with Brown and Democratic lawmakers for the drought package’s announcement.

Last year’s version was approved by the Legislature with nearly unanimous support, as is expected for this drought package.

Though Republican lawmakers appeared to have no hand in crafting the measure – having only been made aware of it shortly before the announcement – Brown said the Republicans’ support was evidence “we’re doing well.”

He dismissed the timing of their involvement as a “narrative that’s not particularly interesting.”

Still, it made for awkward stagecraft.

After first planning to address reporters after the news conference Thursday, Republican leaders changed course at the last minute to appear with Brown and the Democratic legislative leaders.

Republicans attended their first meetings on the plan Wednesday, and the governor contacted Olsen on Thursday morning, Olsen spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said.

She declined to elaborate further on Republicans’ role in discussions.

“I’ll let the governor’s remarks stand for themselves,” Fulkerson said.

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders. Jeremy B. White of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Drought relief

Here is how most of the proposed drought funds will be spent:

$660 million for flood management planning and infrastructure improvements, including levee work.

$272.7 million for drinking water quality, water recycling and desalination projects.

$24 million for emergency food aid for people, such as farm workers, out of work due to drought.

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